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When a Picture Is Not Worth a Thousand Words

Every family has collections of photographs. Judy Rosella Edwards takes a look at photographs from a professional researcher's perspective.


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Family photo albums have been a staple in the American home for decades. We cherish them. We laugh and cry over them at family get-togethers. As sentimental as photographs are, they are not considered primary, or highly relevant, evidence of genealogical sources. Photographs are often mislabeled, unlabeled, and taken out of context. Proving the subject in a photograph is difficult, at best.

My family has, for years, circulated a photograph of my great-grandfather posing with his Native American cousins. It isn't true. The photograph is in the National Archives. It is a photograph of a well-known language interpreter posing with several chiefs at a treaty meeting. Even the photographer has been identified.

Postcard Photos

Postcard photos were the Facebook of their generation when photographers stumbled onto a new market. Travelling photographers, as well as the local portrait photographer, discovered clients would buy photos of themselves mounted on postcards. Many of these postcard photos survive today. Pull a black-and-white or sepia tone postcard-size photo out of a photo album and look at the back. You're likely to see that it is a postcard and may have been received via the mail.

The photo postcard is often better research evidence than most photographs. The photo postcard usually bears a note identifying who posed and perhaps even why. If the postcard was mailed, there will be a postmark providing at least an estimated timeframe, whether the postcard was sent immediately or not. It also established that there was a close relationship between the sender and receiver.

Photographs were not sacred. It is not unusual to find handwritten information on the postcard photos. Fortunately, that helps us identify people, places, and things that no longer exist. This postcard photois of a church that was razed several decades ago.

In researching this church's history, I have encountered several people who challenge that this church was on a different lot in Shelbyville, that is now vacant. Here we have a handwritten note declaring this the "Unitarian Church and Parsonage, Shelbyville, Ill." The parsonage is still standing and that helps verify this information. Nevertheless, I did go to the courthouse and do a property search in order to document the ownership of this property.

The information on the back was also helpful, but only after additional research. Through primary sources, I learned that the pastor who built this church had a daughter named Winifred Douthit.

She is the person who sent the postcard, signing her name simply as "Winifred." Without the primary source proving that Rev. Douthit had a daughter named Winifred, the postcard was not especially evidential.

Through other research, we also know that Miss Ivah Fear was actively involved with Rev. Douthit's Chautauqua. Ivah's address is a bit difficult to read, except for the fact that Chautauqua records prove that she lived in Assumption, Illinois.

Posted postcards (ones that were actually mailed), present additional evidence. We can see that this postcard was postmarked in Shelbyville, Illinois, in April 1914. The exact date is probably April 1, 1914, but it is bit difficult to read.

Another, more homey example, is a photograph of Laura Shaw Wade and her relatives. It would be really tempting to assume that the person holding the gun is a child. She was not. She was probably in her 30's when this photograph was taken. She had a lifelong illness that resulted in her growth being stunted. The names of the people in the photograph have been written on the back. But, research a number of photos and you'll discover that the names are often wrong.

The Post Card Phenomena

There were companies that specialized in penny postcards, so named because they required a mere penny stamp. This is an example of a Velox postcard.

Velox was originally manufactured by Nepera Chemical Company. Kodak bought Velox in 1902 and continued producing Velox postcards until 1940. If you have a photo printed on a Velox postcard, you can narrow down the timeframe of the photo -- within about four decades! It can still be helpful. If a photo was printed on Velox and was an original, then it could not possibly have been printed prior to 1893, when Velox was invented.

The problem is that photographs can be reproduced. A photograph that was printed on a certain date offers no evidence of the actual date the photo was taken.

To research postcards at all, requires a careful eye. It is possible to determine the date the cardstock was manufactured. The graphics varied over the years. The Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City has a glossary online for dating postcard graphics. Nevertheless, the dates only correspond to the date the cardstock was produced. The postcards could have been ten years old before a photograph was printed on them.

Researching Photographs

Most of us also have collections of years worth of photographs with no identifying information. They were randomly placed in a photo album or maybe collected in a shoebox. Documenting those photographs is challenging. There are likely to be a thousand words exchanged in debates over who the people are, where the photo was taken, and when. To move beyond speculation, requires a logical mind and good research technique. Regardless of whether the photo is on a postcard, there may be a photographer's name someplace on the photo. More recent photos even bear a date.

Examine what people are wearing, who else is in the photo, and even the backdrop. A good example is this photograph taken in Shelbyville, Illinois.

The name of the photographer's studio, J. A. Babb, is engraved on the picture holder along with the city and state. To narrow down the date on this photo, determine the timeframe the photographer was in business. Access to a collection of work by this photographer, might be useful in narrowing down the date. Look for photos of other people taken by the same photographer using the same background props. If the photographer was in business for three or four decades, the props probably changed. If you're really lucky, you might find a local historian who has researched the photographer's studio work and might be able to date the props for you.

The photograph itself is not reliable information. Most people would be inclined to assume that the young people in this photograph are siblings. They are not. The two boys are cousins of the young girl. But none of that is documented on this photograph. It took a lot of comparison of photographs and documentable research to determine that. That is why photographs are considered secondary sources. Often photographs bear no identifying information, or the information is inaccurate or unreliable. More objective resources are required to document a photograph. Even then a photo is not worth the thousand words bantered about in attempt to identify the subjects. But they are fun to look at and very much a part of just about every family's photo album.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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